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Review: Tim Burton's 'Dark Shadows' is a yawn-inducing mishmash of genres

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Tim Burton's "DARK SHADOWS"

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Well, Dark Shadows fans, it's taken fifty years, but director Tim Burton's finally made your dreams come true: the only vampire-centric soap opera from the 60's is now a full-blown feature-length film starring Johnny Depp, and this weekend you can sit in chairs and look at it inside your local multiplex. You can...but should you? Find out below in our official review of Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, my gentle Examiner readers...

In between, oh, February and April, there was a lot of hand-wringing from the film geek community over the state of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. As far as anyone knew, the film was still on track to be released in early May, but the studio behind the film had been remarkably quiet about promoting it.

Where was the reliably overwhelming ad campaign, the one we always suffer through prior to the release of a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp joint? Where were the obnoxious TV commercials, the ones that mercilessly beat one safe-for-primetime punchline into the ground for weeks leading up to the film’s opening? Where were the Entertainment Weekly cover spreads, the breathlessly reported behind-the-scenes scoops? The ARG viral campaigns? Hell, what was the plot?

When April rolled around and we still hadn’t heard anything, the whispers began: maybe the film would be delayed! Maybe it’s unwatchable, in need of massive reshoots, a total catastrophe! Maybe Tim Burton-- whose Alice in Wonderland was savaged by critics but embraced by the masses-- had finally run out of luck.

Ironically enough, the drama surrounding Dark Shadows’ late-to-the-party marketing campaign turns out to be twice as compelling as anything that appears onscreen during the actual film. Indeed, Dark Shadows is so unremarkable and lifeless, it’s likely that you won’t even be bothered to call it a “bad movie”. It’s enormously mediocre (which is kind of hard to believe considering the number of genres and “wacky” moments--almost all of which inspired a series of brutally heavy sighs from the audience I saw the film with--Burton packs into the flick’s two-hour running time), the very definition of a "Maybe Worth Getting From Redbox For a Dollar" movie.

I fought the urge to nap during Dark Shadows… but this ultimately proved itself to be a wasted effort, as I can’t really remember anything about the flick. This is that special kinda “mediocre”, the kind that evaporates from your memory before you’ve even left the theater parking lot (this phenomenon never fails to remind me to watch Memento, so I guess the news ain’t all bad).

What I do recall comes primarily from the film’s opening 10-15 minutes. During that sequence, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, as played by Johnny Depp ™) tells us what amounts to his “origin story”: after drawing the ire of a jealous witch named Angelique (Eva Green, still hot), Barnabas’ woman-to-be ends up dead at the bottom of a steep cliff, while he gets turned into a vampire before being buried alive. This section of the film is actually a lot of fun, and feels suspiciously close to “Burton firing on all cylinders”. But then, just when you’re allowing yourself to think that this might be Burton’s best effort in years, the story jumps forward—to the 70’s—and that’s when things take a turn.

And not the good kind of “turn”, either.

The plot’s mainly divided between three main threads: Barnabas being unleashed in the 70’s (oh, boy, jokes about how kitschy the 70’s were: that’s never been done before!), the secrets and scandals of the various family members now living in Barnabas’ house (What, you thought Helena Bonham Carter wasn’t going to show up as an oddly-coiffed weirdo? Please, son), and Barnabas’ ongoing battle with Angelique, who’s survived all these years to become quite the local celebrity in Barnabas’ hometown (I wonder if he’ll get the better of her in the end?). You won't be invested in any of these, by the way. But that's okay, because-- in-between all of that-- there are a number of subplots (some of which get all tied up by the end; some of which remain dangling) and about ten secondary characters to keep up with. Maybe one of those will be more to your liking?

Probably not: even with some of the cast turning in strong performances (Michelle Pfeiffer will make you think, “Hey, I kinda miss Michelle Pfeiffer!”), you won’t care about any of that stuff, either. The sprawling, convoluted nature of the plot seems to be a parody of the sprawling, convoluted plotlines made famous (?) in the original Dark Shadows TV series, but ask yourself: how long have you been waiting for someone to come along and really stick it to a somewhat-obscure, vampire-centric soap opera from the late 60’s? Never even occurred to ya, did it? I suppose one could argue that this parody could be directed at virtually all soap operas, but again: how long have you been waiting for Tim Burton to show all those stupid soap operas who’s boss? If it’s parody, the target here isn’t universal enough to make the punchlines land. And if it’s not parody, this is just an overly-busy, boringly messy script.

Besides the “miss” of the script/plot itself, there were plenty of other things I didn’t respond to in Dark Shadows. We could be here all day if I listed them all, so I’ll keep it simple and just mention the two second-biggest issues I had with the film. To begin, there’s the truly bizarre (not to mention skeevy) sexualization of Chloe Moretz, playing a celebrity-and-partying-obsessed 15-year-old named Carolyn. The script goes out of its way to tell us how young she is, but from the moment she enters the frame Burton’s camera drools over her in a number of really questionable ways: a shot where the audience’s eye is drawn to Moretz’ crossed legs (in a mini-skirt), Moretz slinkily dancing in the corner of a room in a tight sweater, and so on. I almost thought I was imagining this, but upon mentioning the whole thing to a few of my fellow critics after the screening, I found that they’d all felt similarly skeeved out by these moments. Now—as I’m sure you know—I’m no prude, so you can imagine what it must’ve taken for me to take notice of this. I’ll be surprised if more isn’t made of this after the film’s opening weekend.

My other big gripe? The fact that the whole thing never feels like a movie that “needed” to be made. I guess no movie “needs” to be made, but Burton—who’s mentioned his desire to get a Dark Shadows film made for years and years now—clearly had a strong urge to bring this one to life. It’s true that I haven’t been blown away by anything that Burton’s done in a depressingly long time (I recently rewatched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and—lemme tell ya—if you haven’t watched a pre-1997 Burton film in a while, it’ll floor you all over again), but I assumed that the dude’s career-long itch to get this one made would result in something special. Instead, it feels like the same phoned-in Burton we’ve been getting since Sleepy Hollow (with the possible exception of Big Fish), and lord knows it’s the same phoned-in Johnny Depp we’ve been getting since Pirates 2.

Many wondered if Dark Shadows was going to work as a film. The combination of horror, comedy, and melodrama seemed risky from the very beginning, but I’d really been hoping that Burton, Depp, and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith would deliver something as refreshingly unique, entertainingly bonkers, and endearingly weird as the original TV series was. They did not. Even if their hearts were in the right place, they missed the mark in a big way on this one, and I find it hard to believe that Dark Shadows will please newcomers to the franchise or the series’ hardcore fans. Do not bother, folks: with The Avengers, Cabin in The Woods, and God Bless America (opening tomorrow) in theaters this weekend, there’s no reason to waste your moviegoing dollars on something this lifeless.

My grade? D+

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